To what extent do modern and classical liberals agree over the role of the state?

Each strand of liberalism believes in the idea of a limited state which is placed there by the people it governs, an idea brought about during the Enlightenment. Liberalism rejects the Hobbesian notion that ordinary people were mere subjects of the state, with an obligation to obey. However, each of the strands believes in a limited state to varying degrees, with early classical liberals believing in the most limited state, and modern liberals extending that role. It will be argued that what all strands of liberalism are unified by is the ‘representative state’ but what this means changes depending on the political and economic context. This is due in part to the emergence of Socialism as a political force and the impact of unbridled laissez-faire economic liberalism upon the poor. 

Early classical liberals believe that the state’s role is to encourage individualism. Early classical liberal John Locke, who is seen as the father of liberal philosophy, denied the traditional principle that the state was part of God’s creation and argued that the ‘true’ state would be one of mankind’s creation to serve their interests. He believed that, prior to the state’s existence, there was a state of nature underpinned by natural law, natural liberties and natural rights. It would be irrational for individuals to abandon both natural rights and individualism by submitting unconditionally to any state. The state of law was therefore designed to improve upon this state of nature and would only be legitimate if it respected natural rights. Adding on from this idea, Locke believed that this state would only arise from the consent of those who would be governed by it, stating ‘government should always be the servant, not the master, of the people’, creating the social contract theory. Because of its contractual nature, the state would be limited to always representing the interests of the governed, this limited nature being confirmed through the dispersal of its powers. This was to be used as a check on the state because, as Lord Acton said, ‘power tends to corrupt […] and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely’. This is seen through the US Constitution, inspired by Locke’s liberalism, which introduced a series of checks and balances designed to avoid power being concentrated, with the branches of government (the executive, the legislature and the judiciary) are kept separate. 

Each group of classical liberals believe that the government should not just be limited but also minimal. They did not think that it should infringe upon the rights and individualism of the people being governed, therefore only being permitted to provide laws for some aspects of government, such as security. This is seen through the ideas of later classical liberal Thomas Jefferson, ‘The government that is best is that which governs least […] when government grows, our liberty withers’. Later classical liberals added to these views of the state, however stating that the state would need to be slightly more proactive to ensure the rights of its citizens were protected. Thinker Jeremy Bentham suggested that citizens would need to strive for ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ and this would inform legislation. John Stewart Mill adapted Bentham’s idea by arguing, “that act is best which brings about the greatest amount of pleasure, on balance, for the greatest number.”  Although Mill accepted Locke’s notion of the state, his principle of ‘Rule Utilitarianism’ opened the door for greater state interference. This interference, however could only be justified by the “greater good” principle. This gave the state more room to intervene and some could argue undermine the concept of a limited state. Mill argued that the purpose of the state was to facilitate a “beneficial two war relationship between the individual and the community”, this contrasts with Locke’s view that the state’s role was to create a free environment for the individual to determine his own conception of the good life.  

Arguably, John Stuart Mill has created a strand between classical liberalism and modern liberalism called developmental liberalism. Negative liberty was linked to Mill’s idea of a ‘harm principle’ – the idea that an individual’s actions should always be tolerated by the state unless those actions harm others. Mill believed that actions that are ‘self-regarding’ should be tolerated but that the state should seek to prevent actions that were ‘other-regarding’. Mill was particularly concerned that the principle of ‘government by consent’ would be compromised if the wishes of some individuals were ignored by the wishes of most citizens, essentially fearing that a democratic state could lead to tyranny of the majority. He believed that direct democracy was much more likely to create this and so updated Locke’s idea of a representative government into the idea of a representative democracy. 

Modern liberals differ from classical liberals in the role of the state. They argue that social justice, as well as legal justice, was required if individuals were to fulfil their potential. In order for this to occur, a substantial extension of the state: more laws, more state spending, more taxation and more state bureaucracy, changing from a minimal state into what John Rawls referred to as an ‘enabling state’. This could be seen as a departure from classical liberalism as classical thinkers saw taxation as ‘theft’ and sought to restrict it. However, Rawls believed that an enlarged society, with higher taxation and significant wealth redistribution, was consistent with classical liberalism’s idea of government by consent. Modern liberals agree with classical liberals that direct democracy can lead to tyranny of the majority, seeing the UK’s EU Referendum in 2016 as an example of tyranny of the majority, with its focus on migration, but also seem willing to dilute even representative democracy in order to protect their liberal values. For example, they supported the UK’s Human Rights Act, which arguably transferred powers from elected representatives to unelected judges. This idea of the enabling state was furthered by Betty Friedan who argued that the state had to take a decisive stand against discrimination, especially against women. She critiques the Lockean ‘limited state’ as it had allowed centuries of discrimination against women and called for more state intervention. She called for legislation to outlaw discrimination and to enforce gender and other forms of equality. Classical liberals like Locke would see Friedan’s state as too intrusive, however, Mill’s harm principle may allow him to appreciate the ‘enabling state’ if the harm of discrimination became apparent and widespread. 

In conclusion, modern and classical liberals differ greatly on their views on the state, yet they are both tied to the idea that the state serves the people it governs and the idea of government by consent, differing mainly when it comes to how the state can best serve them. They are unified by the ‘representative state’ but in different eras this meant different things. 

Orla McCallan

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